My biggest (rookie) mistake as Virtual Team Leader – MES003

This episode is about my biggest mistake when leading a Virtual Team. It is most likely a very common mistake, but if you’re not knowing about it you might stumble into it with highest probability. Listen to this episode and get the tools to prevent your failing in working with Virtual Teams.

What are Virtual Teams?

Team should be obvious. In german it is capable to disarrange the starting letters T,E,A,M into Toll, Ein Anderer Machts. That means: “Great, somebody else is doing the job.” That’s only a joke of course. You know there are some opportunities to hide within a team. But the use of a team should be obvious.

A Virtual Team now means a group of persons working together only in a virtual way. Regular teams usually have a quite close connection. Sitting together, talking directly to each other, seeing each other and having the direct grasp on each other. All that is not available in Virtual Team‘ing.

Virtual Team members are off-sited. Sometimes even part of other organizations. And Virtual Team members regularly work together by using online media like email, chat, video-connection, phone calls, etc.

Their main challenges of working together are:

  • Time zones
  • Language barriers
  • Cultural differences
  • Behaving differences

Each of these challenges needs different treatment and special attention when working in Virtual Teams and especially when leading Virtual Teams.

My biggest (rookie) mistake as Virtual Team Leader was that I did not take into account that the guys are different.

Not only a difference in language or look, but they are different in culture, beliefs, values and habits. Of course I have known that there are differences, but I have not acted like that.

The map is not the territory

My main failure was that I simply assumed the guys are like me – like a german. A german engineer. Someone thinking that there is only one truth. Someone very often thinking he knows the exact truth. And if you know the only truth, everything else could be only not the truth and must be therefore adapted.
That’s a very rational, very ego-centric, but very common understanding of the world in Germany. That’s one of our essentials. We’re struggling and discussing about the truth, but when we have it, then it’s invariable – because it’s the truth.

Oh man, I was that wrong.

Let’s make an example: at one time I have overtaken a virtual team with members in different European countries. I run into a problem with the guys as we were still in the forming phase of the team. I wanted the guys to do something. I have explained it. I have enabled them to do it. I have checked whether they have understood what should be done. According to my understanding I have done everything that within my regular context of Germans the things would have been done appropriately.

I fully relied on the assumption that if there would have been contradictions or different opinions that the guys would have told me. But there was nothing. No response. No question.

Only the result. And that was far away from everything I would have expected. Do not misunderstand me, the guys have done a lot of work (and that’s the sad point because I was responsible for the waste of time and effort) and they presented proudly their results. But it was not even close to what I have expected.

I was that astonished and frustrated. But that was pure luck. Because it gave me the attention I needed. It was obvious, if the results are that far away from the expected results, something must be wrong in general.

I talked with each of the members separately. I asked them to understand what exactly they have understood what should be done. The answers were surprising. They were aware that they haven’t understood in detail what I wanted to be done. What?
Why do they have not told me? Why do they have not interrupted me?
My thoughts at that point (as a German) – if I have something significant for the absolute truth which is not covered in the truth told me, then I add that, because otherwise it could not be the truth. Understandable?

Thus I asked the guys and I got as a response that it is not acceptable in their understanding to provide the leader such comments! Bamm. That was heavy stuff! Not acceptable to add sth to the truth? A big swallow on my side.

I digged deeper and in fact I got the responses that especially Germans have a very high reputation in their countries and nobody wanted to interrupt or disturb them.
That was really crazy. I asked them whether they could imagine that I’m wrong with my actions – and pushed them in real internal conflicts. They could not imagine that. And I could not imagine that they act in that way. Amazing.

It looks like we have stumbled over a conflict in our maps of the world. Our internal representation how our world and our reality is working. What does that mean?

There is a NLP presupposition: The map is not the territory

Our internal map of the world and our reality is built by:

  • our 5 senses,
  • modified by neurological processes or filters,
  • forming values, beliefs, rules and capabilities
  • and it impacted and biased by
    • deletions
    • distortions
    • generalization

Generalization is the basis for the formation of our beliefs. What we believe about the world is how we interact within it. Most often it is our beliefs that limit us. We have beliefs about spirituality, the world, our capabilities and our environment, right and wrong, what is just and unjust, and whether or not we can change.

Values are the things we invest our time, money and effort in trying to attain. Examples: Fun, freedom, money, love, honesty, integrity. They are what is important to us. And we have very definite criteria or rule structures about how we go about attaining them.

Everybodies internal map of the world is purely individual and unique. That also means the realities are different! And that means the truth is different! Or better: everybody has his own truth. A very “bad” conclusion from my german perspective 🙂

Especially differences in very general aspects of reality are the source of problems, like education, family, culture, religion, etc.

How to avoid my rookie mistake as Virtual Team Leader?

Visit your guys

That’s a very essential point. Become familiar with each other. On a very personal level. You guys will work together for hours every day. You should know the person on the other end of the email-line. A gathering is very worthful for working in Virtual Teams. Jan Lorig’s study about Success Factors for Virtual Project Teams (released in 2014) mentions “Face-to-Face kickoff” meeting as number two factor within a range of 15 different success factors. All contributers in this study remarked the importancy of initial familiarity for the success of Virtual Teams.

For the leader this means, insist on having such kick-off-meetings and show the benefits in avoiding wasted effort due to misunderstandings and mistrust.

Moreover for the team-leader this means to visit the different sites with Virtual Team members often. I have done that in a range of 4-6 months. I remarked a loose of touch with all the members after 2-3 months. After my next visit the tight personal connection stayed in place for an additional 2-3 month period. But it needs permanent refreshal. Keep that in mind if you want to succeed with your Virtual Team.

Establish an atmosphere of trust and open mindness.

Consider you’re running a team which members do not see each others on a daily base. There is no “good morning” or a coffee-/tea-break in between. Only regular phone calls and meetings. But both are driven by intention or pressure of outstanding work duties. There is regularly no small-talk or personal calls.

Establish a direct chat-possibility. The members of your team should be able to come into touch with you everytime. Treat them with very high priority. Or give them a call every now and then simply to stay in touch. With no particular reason. Same as you would do if they would stay on your site.

Ask your guys what exactly they expect from you in your co-workership. This can be very careful as it means they have to phrase the potentially clouded or unclear excpecations into something more concrete. Note it down and keep it in mind. It’s such worthful to understand their actioning.

Get familiar with your team-mates’ culture, beliefs and values

Try to gather what are the main aspects of their culture. What are their regular beliefs and values. That’s of course no topic for the first meeting. But keep in mind and if you have the opportunity, then ask. Be very open minded. Listen. Do not judge. Simply collect.

Ask the members of your Virtual Team how they feel in their role. Listen carefully if you here generalizations or deletions in their sentences. That’s exactly the point where beliefs start and the underlying map is shining through.

Try to evaluate when your own map is overtaking and you’re assuming you have understood something. Very often you hear something and you generalize and think you have understood. But it perhaps has only triggered one aspect in your map and your created the rest by yourself.

Build up your model of their reality

It makes sense to minimise the need for assumptions by finding out what is actually in each other’s map. The process of finding out is called modelling. Do it this way:

Let tasks or duties be repeated by the team-members with their own words. Let them tell you what exactly they think are the main goals of this task and what this goals mean to them. That’s of course some special activity for the beginning of your coworking and it can be reduced or dropped afterwards. I meanwhile use exactly my own failure as the reason to request this action from the team-members. And all of them have understood this approach and appreciated this thinking ahead.

Use the other persons word, but do not assume that you’re meaning the word in the same way as they do. Clarify the meaning of words!

Listen very carefully what the guys tell you and ask questions if you do not understand. You can detect misalignments in speech by a simple pattern: everything said you cannot pack into a pushcart is a substantivation and must be evaluated. For example: “This task needs my full attention.” You cannot put attention into a pushcart, don’t you. Therefore ask what exactly the person understands with attention.

Curiousity and tolerance

Both aspects are needed for sure when leading Virtual Teams. Become the nosiest person in the world belonging the way your virtual team members are thinking and acting. No control, but ask them a lot.

And give yourself and your team-mates room for tolerance. Within Virtual Teams you must be much more tolerant than in local teams where you meet members face-to-face. Accept misunderstandings as a regular part of your Virtual Team‘ing and don’t get frustrated. Keep going and avoid the same mistake the next time.

What about you?

Now I’d love to hear from you what’s your experience in working with Virtual Teams?

  • What failures in Virtual Team working have you observed?
  • What are your preferred approaches for handling these inter cultural gaps?
  • What kind of challenges do you see in Virtual Team’ing?

Do you have a habit or problem that I didn’t list here? Or do you wanna agree or disagree with me about these actions? I’d love to hear from you. Please comment on the show-notes at the And let me know your experience, your thinking and what you’ve done in similar situations.

Thank You For Listening

Out of all the podcasts available in the Internet you tuned into mine, and I’m grateful for that. If you enjoyed the episode, please share it by using the social media buttons you see at the bottom of this note. Also, I would be very happy if you would consider taking the minute it takes to leave an honest review or rating for the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. They’re extremely helpful when it comes to the ranking of the podcast. For sure I read every single one of them personally! Or, if you prefer a more direct contact, don't hesitate and drop me a note at

2 replies
  1. Andrija
    Andrija says:

    Hi Georg,

    This topic sounded very familiar 🙂
    Lot’s of useful hints about virtual teams and multi-site working environments.
    I’m glad you are using your old exlanation tools – metaphores, comparisons and graphic descriptions to clarify meaning of complex topics.

    Looking forward to future episodes.

    Lot’s of luck.


    • georg
      georg says:

      Thank you for your keen words Andrija. It’s definitely my intention to provide besides information, tools and guts also some kind of entertainment 🙂
      This was the first episode about Virtual Teams. I want to release several more picking some details and explaining in depth.

      CU, Georg

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